Climate change conference – designed to fail?

I finally arrived Durban yesterday – at the beginning of the second week of the United Nations Climate Change Conference. I had spent the last week in Bangalore at an event organised by the International Renewable Energy Agency, the inter-governmental agency for the promotion of renewable energy. IRENA brought together about fifty leaders comprising entrepreneurs and experts to gauge where we are in addressing barriers to the growth of renewable energy.

We got into town early enough to soak in the breathtaking beauty of this Indian Ocean city with its endless beaches and lush landscape. But we arrived too late for registration at the Albert Luthuli International Conference Centre, the venue of the climate change conference.

I joined a shuttle bus to my hotel alongside delegates and some NGOs. Beside me was Antonio. He was from Chile and works for a government agency. This was Antonio’s first COP – the annual Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. He told me he had been here since the beginning of the two-week conference. But the whole event seems too overwhelming and confusing. It feels like hundreds of meetings going on at the same time. Antonio told me he had attended a number of negotiation meetings, but he had come out more confused. Hours upon hours are spent on procedural issues and fine language.

I had followed developments in the Durban negotiations from Bangalore. Strangely, you have a better chance of tracking these negotiations away from the mad rush of fifty-five simultaneous negotiation tracks attended by over 10,000 delegates from 194 countries. With several online publications and newsletters you can feel the pulse of the negotiations thousands of kilometres away.

I asked Antonio and the others on the bus what the mood of the negotiation was like. Are we close to any tangible agreements? I asked. It will be awful if the first COP on the African soil will result in a disaster.

We all knew that an agreement on the reduction of the emission of dangerous gases into the atmosphere is not within reach in Durban. In a way, existing agreements make global response to climate change dependent on mandatory emission reductions from rich countries and similar actions to be taken by developing countries on the basis of financial transfer from rich countries.

The only big hope for Durban was therefore an agreement to launch the Green Climate Fund already established by the Cancun Accord last year. But this hope is now shaky. Several countries are now calling for the opening of negotiations on the report by a Transitional Committee established to work out the details. So there is an atmosphere of despair, especially among NGOs.

The loss of momentum and the whole atmosphere of powerlessness that is increasingly grinding this global effort to a halt seem to be structural. It is as if the climate change talks are designed to fail. With tens of negotiation issues being discussed at the same time, there is apparently no sense of priorities. Over the years, we have not seen a sufficient number of quick-wins that has been agreed upon and successfully implemented. Let’s take for one the issue of energy poverty.

The United Nations Secretary General has dedicated 2012 as the year of Sustainable Energy Access. Nearly 2 billion of the world’s population have no access to electricity and are dependent on wood fuel for their daily cooking. These billions of open fire result in billions of tons of these harmful gases sent to the atmosphere every year. But they also result to millions of deaths from respiratory and other diseases. The cost of modern efficient wood cooking stoves could be between 750 – 1500 Naira or five to 10 US dollars. This means that if these endless negotiations had focused on solving this problem, we could have prevented billions of tons of these gases from being emitted to the atmosphere. At the same time we would have saved millions of lives and built a huge stove industry with millions of jobs. In Nigeria alone this will result to the prevention nearly 100,000 deaths annually. But this is hardly the focus of the negotiations. Or is it?

Ewah Otu Eleri Executive Director, International Centre for Energy, Environment & Development.